Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau

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Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: We have two stories in one here, of an old writer's life with words and love, and a young translator's awakening and discoveries. Both show us universally enjoyable narratives set in a world previously unknown to us, and the combined effect of the pair is highly commendable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847373120

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Itsik Malpesh is born a month early, amidst the horrors of an anti-Jewish Pogrom, in pre-soviet Moldova. The lifetime that separates that from his death as the last great Yiddish poet of the USA (so he says) is a varied and distinctive one. It is revealed in a series of notebooks translated by an anonymous and much younger writer, sometime in the 1990s, wherein we read of a singular school-age companion, a risky journey to Odessa, a first career as a printer's assistant, and much more.

Due to the extensive translator notes that are interspersed every third or fourth chapter, we also get a more modern story, of a young man fresh from college, waywardly finding employ sorting books for a Jewish cultural depository, finding and losing love, and being tasked by Malpesh in salvaging a library of Yiddish publications.

The splitting of the stories is never forced, and both offer something welcome and enjoyable. Malpesh's narrative didn't quite convince me we were in Moldova or Odessa, but by the time the USA is reached there was much more in the way of believable, telling detail in both setting and personnel. The modern timeline is also strong on personality, as the narrator encounters a charming colleague, gets taken for a Jew when he's merely lapsing from his Catholic background, and finds himself – and hence us the reader – swimming in uncharted waters of Yiddish printing.

This is a book that wears the topics that make it distinctive very lightly at times, a bit too heavily at others. Both narrators and narrations are interested to some extent in words, their languages, and religion. The first two pages of Malpesh's first person notebooks are quite alienating, with talk of how his name differs in Yiddish and Hebrew, and conversations he overhears at a bizarre establishment in Odessa can bear heavily on us.

Conversely there is a lot of humour to be had, and this comes equally from the religious side of things, the nature of untranslated books and Malpesh's initial entry into the world of American publishing. This is where Peter Manseau, our alarmingly young-looking author, shows his research credentials, as he covers subjects and topics we would never have thought to find interesting in a warm fictional style.

It is the fun elements of the fiction that charmed me most – above and beyond the comedy there is the way characters from Malpesh's family legends turn up by chance, among many characters returning when we might least expect them. The love stories to be told on both sides of the translational divide are both charming and freshly delivered.

Long distances walked, love kept in people's hearts for years and years, two different stories told by different yet linked people decades apart, all meant I was reminded of Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann. They're slightly different beasts, as this shows us the world by hard detail and not an introspective character study, and here the link between the plots is kept less of a secret, but in a fair world this will be as successful as the other.

I can't pretend to have loved every element of the book – as I say there were a couple of instances of literary and linguistic discussion I could have done without, but just as the brilliance of this book makes me deem it general fiction that breaks it away from the esoteric subjects that might have made me call it literary fiction, so by the end the Malpesh story has wrapped me in such emotions the book breaks away from the four and a half stars it might have got to get the full whammy.

The book itself offers the full whammy of emotions, and I find little wrong with recommending this book – its levity far outweighs its apparent heaviness and it opens doors to a pair of unique narratives I heartily absorbed.

We at the Bookbag are very grateful to the publishers for our review copy.

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